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Posted: Sunday, Nov. 09, 2008

Straight-ticket voters skewer GOP

Published in: Taylor Batten

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A lot of good Republicans were taken down by a Democratic tidal wave on Tuesday. But there's reason to think that many of the Republicans who lost were victims of blanket anti-Republican sentiment, not judgments about their character or policies or experience.

Dig into the numbers and you see that voters who pulled a straight ticket, meaning they pushed one button to cast votes for all the candidates of one party, made the difference in most races. Democrats rolled up a lead of 400,000 votes in statewide races among straight-ticket voters. Mecklenburg Democrats led by 66,000 among straight-ticket voters. That was too big a hole for most Republicans to dig out of, even though Republicans fared well among voters who voted in each race separately.

Take Mecklenburg Register of Deeds Judy Gibson, a Republican. She is a 16-year veteran of the office who by most accounts has done a good job. It's safe to say that few voters knew her name, far fewer knew her opponent David Granberry and almost none knew much about either individual.

More than 147,000 Mecklenburg voters pulled the Democratic straight-ticket lever. Only 81,000 pulled the Republican lever. So Granberry had a 66,000-vote lead out of the chute, although almost none of those voters could tell you a thing about him. Gibson didn't stand a chance. She would have needed to thump Granberry 72 percent to 28 percent among non-straight-ticket voters. She won an impressive 58 percent of their vote, but it wasn't enough, and she was swept out of office.

The same held true in the Mecklenburg County commissioners race. Democrats Jennifer Roberts, Dan Murrey and Harold Cogdell built a 66,000-vote lead through straight-ticket voting. Non-straight-ticket voters backed Republicans Dan Ramirez and Susan Walker handily over Murrey and Cogdell, but not handily enough.

Some of this is driven locally by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Black Political Caucus, which endorsed Democrats in every race, with no indication that it was judging each individual candidate on his or her merits.

The pattern was the same up and down the ballot. Throw out straight-ticket voters and Elizabeth Dole wins, Pat McCrory wins, and Republicans win most Council of State seats.

But a-ha! You can't throw out straight-ticket voters, of either party. Some of them are people who are deeply committed to their party and want those people in office. Others, to be sure, are woefully uninformed voters who do no homework and just blindly pull the party lever. Others are probably just regular folks overwhelmed by North Carolina's too-long ballot. They lead busy lives, they stand in a long line to vote and then are greeted, in Mecklenburg, with 78 candidates on the ballot. It's not surprising they might take a shortcut.

The result is some skewed outcomes. UNC Charlotte professor Ted Arrington says animals on the plains and fish in the ocean have evolved to travel in herds and schools because it confuses predators. Voters are the predators today, and long ballots allow inferior candidates to hide inside the herd and not get picked off. Other, good candidates randomly get yanked out. Voters pick and choose a lot less with such a long ballot.

What do we take away from all this? I wouldn't abolish the straight-ticket option. Purely strategically, you just have to hand it to the Democrats and Barack Obama for getting their voters to the polls and getting them to vote straight Democrat. I'm no fan of straight-ticket voting, but Republicans would do well to encourage their supporters to vote a straight ticket next time, just to compete with the Democrats.

The real solution, though, would be to shorten the ballot. Why do we vote for a register of deeds anyway? Appoint the register of deeds, appoint judges and appoint some of the Council of State offices, and you just might have a ballot people can handle.

Reach me at tbatten@charlotteobserver.com.

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